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In the time-honoured RPG tradition, I've been collecting swords.
Not to use, necessarily Arcania's endless kill-and-loot cycle so rarely throws up compelling gear, it's almost a joke but to sell. Gold is required to buy crafting blueprints from the smithy, so I can tinker up some interesting magical weapons of my own. These blueprints are astronomically expensive, but I've been collecting for some hours now. Let's see what the shopkeeper thinks of my wares.
32 swords, nine crossbows, 19 bows, 17 shields, a dozen orcish maces, a couple of hundred arrows and a magical warhammer nearly twice my height called Cold Hatred. I wait for the trader's reaction to my titanic haul. Seriously, I'm like Doctor Who, cheerfully jogging an endless string of first-division players out of the Tardis in front of a baffled Fabio Cappello.
Does he stagger back in amazement at the implausibility of it all? No. He tosses me a pittance, which nudges my funds the tiniest pico-increment towards affording something truly useful. This scene illustrates the lack of balance that permeates Arcania.
The fourth instalment of the Gothic RPG series has fallen to German developer Spellbound after the original studio, Pirhana Bytes, split from their publishing deal with JoWood in 2007. It's familiar territory for fans of the series at heart, it's a trad hack-and-slash RPG but after three years in development (and with some obvious areas of excellence we'll come to) you might expect something a little more rounded, a little more intelligent, a little more... developed.
Take the visuals. In many regards they're spectacular and evocative. You'll see some breathtaking vistas in Arcania; looking down from a high mountain across acres of woodland, with snowy peaks rising in sharp, blue-white relief in the far distance, you might make out a temple nestling among the crags and, with a feeling of warm anticipation, realise you'll probably end up there soon.
Sunrise and sunset can be times of wonder. An early bow-tutorial quest sees you hunting deer at sunset in a woodland glade. Excellent use of high dynamic range lighting creates a contrast between deep, shady greenery and the honeyed richness of the setting sun, which paints its way through branches and boughs to colour the terrain in a terrifically atmospheric way. It can be heart-stoppingly beautiful.
But in the same breath, the graphics also disappoint. For instance, dialogue sequences, which use the in-game engine, fail to show off the superb character skins, as high-res textures often don't resolve and those crisp, steely suits of armour slump into drabness. The commendably intense levels of foliage draw in and out of the middle-distance as you wander the world and this really breaks the spell every time you notice it.
The worst assault on the senses comes courtesy of whoever decided to apply tree-sway animations and, seemingly drunk on a dream of dancing foliage, turned the dial to 11. Trunks and branches take on a rubbery life of their own and, in certain parts of the world, entire woodlands sway and lurch sickeningly. It's as though you're stalking through a nightmare landscape of leafy cartoon blancmanges a sad undoing of somebody's hard work that butchers the suspension of disbelief.
The sense of simultaneous success and failure is felt everywhere. Take the quests. They're prolific, and there's a great incentive to do them, as it soon becomes apparent that completing quests is a far more efficient way of levelling than grinding your way through monsters. But fetch-quests and kill-quests are all too frequent, and the machine-shop repetition soon leads to the kind of RPG ennui we've all felt. But it's the critical-path quests, which should feel big, meaty and important, which form the greatest source of irritation. Here's how they work, every single time.
You enter a new area of the world, with a single objective for the storyline. You meet an NPC. He tells you what must be done to drive the story onwards and get you closer to your goal. Then he throws in a complicating factor essentially a storyline sub-quest. Can you maybe go and get this thing for me?
You trot off into the wilds to complete the innocuous sub-quest. You return to the NPC, you ask him about the big objective again, and he says something else now needs to be done, which involves someone else. Another sub-quest. A new NPC to talk to. Mission complete, you ask the new NPC about your key objective. He says he can help, but only if you do something for him. Could you maybe...?
On and on it branches. Arcania consistently highlights important objectives down the road, then clutters your path with a series of busywork roadblocks. And really, that's nothing new; RPGs do this all the time. But it's a question of presentation, and a sense of performing worthy activities.
Fallout 3, for instance, gives you overarching goals, but it never boxes you into feeling that the in-between steps are obstacles to progress or simply irrelevant. Each step feels like a big step, a worthy step, a uniquely world-changing step. Staggeringly, Arcania's main character starts getting shirty with NPCs at this constant series of interferences. It's like a guilty acknowledgement from the scriptwriters.
At one stage I was on the trail of two mages, the only characters in the world who could help me to reach an utterly crucial location. One key NPC on the trail demanded I head back into that awful bloody wobble-forest, which I'd already criss-crossed numerous, bilious times on other minor tasks, to find his lost hat.
Let me get this straight. I'm wearing more metal than a commercial airliner, there's fire dripping from my fingertips and I'm brandishing a polearm the size of a tree. I'm a walking war-god on a quest to save the world, and you're asking me to find... your lost hat?
How about I pull your head off? Then you won't need your hat.
Combat and character development are simple and competent enough, and the obvious specialisation pathways are there: archery, melee and spellwork. A career in the magical arts lacks any real intricacy however, as there are just three combat spells: fire, ice and lightning bolts. This actually makes you less versatile than a dedicated archer, who has access to a wider range of effects through special arrow-types. However, keen attendance to side-quests sees you level frequently, and the proliferation of skill-points means that you can just about get away with being a jack-of-all-trades.
It's worth reiterating that the loot is frequently paltry. Every now and then you'll slay a named NPC, and he'll drop something useful with a neat effect. Everything else is cash-trash, and you'll cart wagon-loads of it to the traders who, woefully understocked with interesting gear themselves, will give you a pauper's fee for your swag.
Alchemical crafting can be useful, as the wide range of elixirs and potions you can make really do have an impact on your combat effectiveness. Weapon crafting, however, seems largely pointless. In 17 hours of play, no craftable weapon I found blueprints for beat what was strapped to my back, and the grind required to locate the correct combination of materials sealed the deal. For all its faults, even Two Worlds had the carrot-and-stick of quality loot to help you feel like you were making some meaningful, empowering progress.
What Two Worlds and Arcania do share is the same grade of voice direction. Arcania's menagerie of gabbling harridans and campy village idiots, with their laboured regional accents and daft intonation, make it sound for all the world like an episode of Horrible Histories. A really cut-rate episode.
Beneath Arcania's often outstanding art direction and technical achievement lies a dry spreadsheet of must-have RPG elements, none of which is sufficiently developed to compel and all of which fail to balance against one another. But its ultimate failing is that it treats you like a heel. It neither mentally nor materially rewards the player, which is absolutely fundamental to an enjoyable RPG.
Arcania: Gothic 4 is available now for PC on Steam. The PC and Xbox 360 versions will be available in shops on 29th October. The PS3 version is due in early 2011.